Eco-writing: Entropology and the Disintegrating Framework of the Novel

As writers, how can we respond to the futility of a climate crisis that shows no signs of slowing down? Writing about nature is nothing new, but what happens when we start to write for and in conjunction with nature instead?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change. I doubt I’m alone in that — it’s hard not to think about it. Every day a new headline laments the loss of a recently-extinct species, or tells of another country ravaged by floods, fires, and extreme weather. The internet is overflowing with tips on living greener: upcycle your old milk cartons into planters, turn off the sink while you brush your teeth. The advice comes with advertisements for “sustainable” clothing brands, “waste-free” hand soap, and “biodegradable” Tupperware. 

As much as I wish planting a flower in my plastic milk carton and buying plant-based garbage bags would help reverse global warming, I know it won’t. It feels futile.

Great, sounds hopeless. What does that have to do with writing?

We all know that writers have taken on the challenges of their times for many generations. And our modern predicament is not the first time writers have been faced with the hopelessness of ecological destruction. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coincided with the rise of Romantic poetry. During the romantic period, poets such as Wordsworth Coleridge, Keats, and Blake turned their attention toward nature and the beauty thereof. These poets reacted to the world around them changing by finding parallels between their inner emotional worlds and the plants, animals, weather, and landscapes threatened by the dawn of industry. 

Since then, artists and writers have continued finding ways to address the climate crisis in their works. In the past few decades, we’ve seen such powerful novels as The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy that address the climate crisis through allegory, by exploring the effects of climate change on communities, and by hypothesizing about a climate-apocalyptic future. 

That brings us pretty near to the present day. Where is climate fiction and eco-poetry now, and where will it go?

One of my favorite proposals about the future of eco-writing comes from Jonathan Skinner’s essay, “Thoughts on Things: Poetics of the Third Landscape”. Skinner explains that in our current situation, “speaking for” certain members of our natural ecosystems isn’t an effective way to oppose climate change. Rather, he advocates for a practice that allows the demands of our surrounding circumstances dictate the shape and form of the “artifacts” we create (whether those may be poems, novels, artworks, or songs). Artist Robert Smithson coined the term “entropology” to describe this new discipline of engaging with and exposing deteriorating frameworks through art. 

As with all things in an industrial world, writing creates waste. Creation necessitates negation, and production necessitates neglect. Skinner says, “An entropology seeks a better balance between production and neglect — in the case of writing, between forcing the right conjunction of sound, image and idea, and somehow letting the words be, in the case of conceptualization, between developing and disintegrating frameworks.” 

Since Skinner published this essay in 2010, many poets have risen to the occasion of engaging entropology in their work. A great example is Amanda Monti’s 2021 collection “Mycelial Person” in which the poet learns from an imitates the weeds of New York city in the form of their poems. Words overlap, break through, push against, and into, each other. The shapes of the poems, or the “artifacts” themselves is dictated by the surrounding circumstances, that being the weediness and biodiversity of the city. 

As much as I love rambling about poetry, I know more of us are novelists than poets. So how does Skinner’s idea of the future of eco-poetics relate to novel writing?

The framework of a novel is arguably more rigid than that of a poem — a poem can be any which shape, any length, grammatically incorrect, adhering to or unsubscribing from structural conventions, and will still be accepted as a poem. On the other hand, novels reliably consist of sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Maybe the aspect of the novel framework that is undergoing disintegration is not the physical shape or form, but rather, the content that makes up a novel, such as character, conflict, and setting. 

There have always been novels about nature, or in which the characters are surrounded or backdropped by nature. But what about novels where the characters aren’t just in nature, but are nature? 

One fascinating example is Richard Powers’ 2018 novel The Overstory in which nine characters are connected by the trees in their lives. The connections between the characters are dictated by surrounding circumstances, shaped by the trees. The characters in the story spread and connect like the root systems of trees in a forest, pieces of their passions blowing away and propagating like seeds dispersing. 

Another example is the disintegrating framework of setting in Rivers Solomon’s 2021 novel Sorrowland. In Sorrowland, the setting not only poses challenges to the characters, but actively shapes, changes, breaks down, and takes over the characters. The main character, Vern, is slowly taken over by a colony of fungus in a literal sense, but her home in the woods also succeeds in breaking down and reconstituting her perceived framework surrounding her disability, race, sexuality, and gender. As the fungus takes over her body, Vern becomes physically invincible -- her blindness and albinism are no obstacle for a network of mycelium spreading all across the country. 

One last example is Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet which explores the disintegrating framework of time through the hyper-relevancy and break-neck speed of her response to news events in the novels. These four novels published in 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020 each respond to news events and crises from the exact years they were published. Autumn, published in 2016, immediately responds to the 2016 European Union membership referendum and Brexit. Winter, Spring, and Summer respond to the news of their years with similarly startling immediacy, at speeds rarely seen before in published novels. Through her use of seasons as settings for the novels, Smith emphasizes the connection between accelerated climate change and an accelerated news cycle.

Reading is one of my favorite ways to learn and find new perspectives. My favorite thing about the idea of a future full of creative, framework-breaking eco-fiction is that it will change the way we think of and engage with nature. We may not be in charge of policies surrounding climate change, but we are in charge of the way we think. The more we write for, with and in nature, the closer we can come to understanding our place within our ecosystem, and the necessity of preserving it for the future.

Photo: Robert Smithson “Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1-9,” 1969

19+ Comments


Thank you for writing this essay. I appreciate your suggestions for bringing readers into the realization and discussion of climate change.

Jan-18 at 13:06


if the world was really so concerned all deforestation would stop immediately, with ways figured to reimburse the people dependent on it for their livelihoods.

Until that happens, it feels like everything is a token gesture. The world needs its lungs.

I see a million ways society is trying to make the world greener, except the one that matters most.

Jan-18 at 13:13


Thank you! I’m glad you liked it :heartpulse: As hopeless as it may seem, as writers all we can do is continue to engage with difficult subjects and look to the future.

Unfortunately, no one on this website is in control of the deforestation in the amazon! But I understand the feeling of futility you’re referring to. I don’t think making art about climate change is a token gesture, but rather an exercise in understanding our ecosystems/our place in nature differently.

Jan-18 at 15:38


I think we have understood that since the dawn of time. Only have to look at native american spirituality, celtic paganism, wiccanism, etc etc to see that.

The powers that be have the abilty to alter deforestation. They peddle global summits about climate change punping billions into spreading the word, but do sod all about what really matters. This confuses me. Global summits to talk about the problems, but nada to make the single most influential change that could be made.
I’m not just talking about the amazon, btw. I like Orangutans. Palm sugar plantations across Indonesia. These animals are too awesome to lose!

Jan-18 at 16:55


Trust me, I agree. I just don’t think it makes any sense to let our conversations about climate change end with things that we have no control over.

Jan-18 at 17:10


Really good blog article. I recycle and take care of my belongings so they last as long as possible (by sewing the holes that appear in my older clothes, etc.). But often, I feel powerless over what’s happening on a global scale and often wonder what more I could do.

Where is climate fiction and eco-poetry now, and where will it go?

I talk about the environment in one of my novels. There’s a race of aliens and the governments ruined their home world. Their solution was to find other worlds to ruin. Half the population protested (they wanted to reverse damage to their planet) and this resulted in a big fight. :slightly_frowning_face: Maybe there’s more I could do in my story that would get people to treat Earth’s environment better. :thinking:

Jan-18 at 19:22


In the movie Independence Day a tiny amount of time is spent on this message. I think Goldblum had a line like, ‘Recycle. Save the world,’ as he tossed an empty can into the bin.

It worked in the movie. I see no reason not to help out in our writing. Providing it’s subtle and done in context.


Jan-18 at 23:03


I feel like the best thing that can happen to humanity is if a group of wise, proactive, empathetic extraterrestrials decides to rescue us from this planet.
As frightening as the prospect may be, it does not seem like we have any feasible alternatives. One way or another, humans will fail to save the earth due to the decisions (or lack thereof) of its leaders.
As a writer, I am trying to envision a solution to not just this issue, but all the threats that plague our society. Due to the apparent hopelessness of our situation, I have specifically chosen not to write realistic fiction, as I see no way to resolve these conflicts within the bounds of currently-defined practicality.

Jan-19 at 17:09


Regarding your opening premise: the futility of a climate crisis that shows no signs of slowing down

Certainly this is the official governmental and think tank position, and one that is for whatever reason immediately adopted as true by a certain population.

However, as writers, we are critical thinkers, and should rigorously investigate any of our assumptions–especially those that are influencing massive global policy changes and economic devastation to the poorest among us, as well as wiping out the middle class.

Thus, a question may first be, upon what assumptions are we basing our concerns or fears? If it is peer-reviewed papers, then good enough for a start. Better than just listening to ‘influencers’ and those self-proclaimed elites who are seeking to ‘save the planet’ while making millions of dollars for themselves and polluting with their private jets and massive carbon footprint homes…

Pollution is one thing. And I’d argue the most important here, and that requires changes in China and other Asian countries, India, and increasingly in Latin America. These are pollution issues, not climate change hype. However, let’s ask, why are the western nations, who are not polluting at anything near the scale of these mentioned, held to different standard than these other nations? Pollution is pollution. Clean it up.

As to climate change. I suggest some difficult research into the arguments against this pronouncement that we are in an unrecoverable disaster. When I was growing up we were told we’re going into an ice age. No more fossil fuels by 1990 or whenever. (Limits to Growth, book. Anyone remember that?) Then we had Global Warming? Anyone notice the change from cold to hot? Now it is change. This is a marketing issue, not a scientific one.

I’d suggest that before one hop out of the window of the tallest building, that a full review of the literature be made, and some consideration as to the impacts of the proposed solutions. Especially, offsetting carbon credits. This is an economic takeover, not a way to ‘save the planet’ by bankrupting any farmer. (Check out Sri Lanka lately? Or Denmark farmers, etc. etc.)

Hint. There are other issues at hand here than the oft-narcissistic tendency to take on the guilt of some collective’s bad action, and turn it into the noble salvation of the whole planet. Investigate into what is happening on the earth, the Sun, and the solar system. There are cycles and magnetic and solar influences which dwarf the impact of man or cow farts.

A stronger question, and more empowering one, would be to investigate and write about the lies that are told through these peer-reviewed papers. Science is not determined by consensus. It is often a rogue outlier who challenges the orthodoxy, and is correct.

Take care. Thanks for your provocative post.

Jan-19 at 20:45


Thanks for your thoughts. Although this has little to do with the subject of my blog post, I would be interested to see literature focused on exposing and investigating the misleading conclusions people are led to about climate change. My approach in writing this piece was more about how we can engage with our personal understandings about nature through writing, rather than trying to take on science as a whole/approving and disproving scientific findings.

Jan-20 at 02:25


I see I was not clear. I took this point, "how can we respond to the futility of a climate crisis that shows no signs of slowing down? " to be an assumption that there is a climate crisis, and asking what can we do about it?
I wasn’t suggesting a wholesale address upon all of science, but an assessment of one’s beliefs.
Thanks for the response.

Jan-20 at 05:23


The book that most changed my perspective is Wilding by Isabella Tree. It is not fiction but the journey of a couple who reversed the intensive agriculture on their land to bring back natural processes. In one chapter, they touch on what many might consider a mundane aspect, but it is actually of colossal importance: soil.
The majority of us don’t perhaps know that healthy soil, with its carbon capture potential, could be an extremely effective tool in the fight against climate change. I won’t bore you by regurgitating details, but to address this issue would not be like sticking a plaster on a gaping wound. It could be a game-changer.
I probably write fantasy because of a need to turn away from the modern world. However, there are books out there (fiction or not) that can create an earthquake in how you live your life.

Jan-23 at 16:40


Very true! I may have to add Wilding to my reading list. There are many niche aspects to healthy ecosystems that often go undiscussed. One of my favorites as of right now is the idea of stream daylighting. Until recently I didn’t realize how many rivers and streams around the world have been covered over to build roads. Uncovering them can lead to huge positive shifts in urban ecosystems, even bringing back species of animals and fish that had left the area. I’ve heard that cultivating healthy soil and allowing native plants to thrive on urban land can have a similar effect.

Jan-24 at 22:01


I enjoyed reading this. Climate change is, or should be, “thought provoking” by definition, and I did find this post thought provoking.

If you’d like another novel to add to your TBR, I recommend Cascade by Rachel A Rosen. It combines climate change with magic in a near-future Canada to explore how we deal with cataclysms we have no real hope of averting.

Feb-04 at 00:19


Thank you! I’m glad you found it thought provoking. I will definitely add Cascade to my reading list. Speculative climate fiction is a fascinating emerging genre, and combining it with elements of fantasy sounds interesting. Have you heard of New York 2140? It has a similar premise, but set in New York without the magic elements.

Feb-04 at 17:31


I’ll add New York 2140 to my TBR. Thanks for the suggestion.

Feb-05 at 10:08


Continuing the discussion from Eco-writing: Entropology and the Disintegrating Framework of the Novel:

This is one of my favorite topics.
For me, our response the the ecological crisis, as writers, depends on our message.
For a positive impact, the best message is cautious hope. Doom messages can shut people down.
Global agreements as well as actual investments in clean energy have inched closer to the end of the century 1.5 degree warming goal than we were less than a decade ago. It’s just not happening fast enough to get there.
But if I were going to create stories about the environment, I might want to paint vivid images to describe vanishing nature. This helps people imagine the environment that still exists but that could vanish.
I spent part of November volunteering in the wet dry rain forest of Western Costa Rica, observing endangered parrots for a study. Every day our small group hiked a rugged six mile path of rocky, muddy trails and waded in rushing rivers holding hands so as not to be swept away.
Ancient cashew trees towered over the banks, remnants of the original forest that was cut down but now regenerating from cattle pastures.
Everywhere there were surprise creatures from howler monkeys to flitting iridescent morpho butterflies. We were often pulling out phone cameras to capture our discoveries or stopping to view something high in the trees with our binoculars.
Maybe places like these could be documented in a story form. Certainly, people who do this can be interesting characters.
These are just thoughts.

Mar-19 at 00:06


Well, yes and no. ‘It worked in the movie’ as a kind of comedic virtue signalling set against the backdrop of the pending imminent destruction of human life on the planet. And distinct from the moralizing kinds of boring busybodies who lecture us on the daily, it was funny, so that’s how and why it worked.

It leavened a deadly serious drama with some unintended comedy (unintended by the characters playing their parts, that is, but completely intended by the writer and director).

Mar-19 at 03:45


Politicians are forced to pay lip service to this.

May-06 at 21:46
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